Pro bono victory in precedent-setting Hague Convention trial
On June 22, 2023, following an eight-day trial that concluded in March, Judge Oetken of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York issued a favorable decision for our client in a case brought under the Hague Convention. Our client, the mother of two children, fled Spain with her children in 2021 to escape their father’s domestic abuse and out of concern about his connections to organized crime and drug trafficking. The father petitioned under the Hague Convention for the children’s return to Spain. With the court’s decision, the father’s petition was denied.
Davis Polk was initially referred to this case by Sanctuary for Families due to our significant experience litigating Hague matters on behalf of survivors of domestic violence. The trial included direct and cross examinations of both parties, six additional fact witnesses and three expert witnesses. The members of our team, ranging from first-year to senior-level associates, each prepared and conducted witness examinations under a supervision model that Judge Oetken endorsed. Davis Polk submitted a post-trial brief well over 100 pages, from which the Court borrowed heavily in its decision.
Judge Oetken’s opinion not only changes the lives of a deserving family, but serves as an important precedent for future survivors seeking refuge. The Court found two defenses to repatriation to exist – the well-settled and mature child objection defenses – and also ruled that it would cause irreparable harm to separate our client’s two children, one of the first rulings of its kind in the Second Circuit. Importantly, the Court also credited the client’s allegations of domestic violence and the testimony provided by our expert, who conducted a trauma analysis. This finding is critical, both for future custody proceedings, and for the client, who was finally heard and believed.
Since arriving in New York, our client has worked tirelessly to support her children. We will continue to represent her in future custody proceedings as needed to secure the trial victory. In a footnote to the decision, Judge Oetken commended “the pro bono counsel and professionals for the vigor and skill with which they litigated this difficult case, and for their donation of substantial time and resources” and noted that the “pro bono work on this case has been in the finest tradition of this District.”
The Davis Polk team included Chief Pro Bono Counsel Amelia Starr, counsel Ester del Valle Izquierdo and Head of Pro Bono Litigation Dara Sheinfeld, associates Brendan Blase, Mollie Hamel, Meredith Manning, Ryann Moelis, Maria Morris, James Park, Paul Shortell and Zoë Smith, legal assistant Conor Chmiel and former associate Emma Schwartz. Jacqueline Berkenstadt also participated.